In his November-issue report, Harper’s editor Ken Silverstein explains how the former Massachusetts governor has been re-branded for the national market. The question now remaining is – Will you buy the product?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. MITT ROMNEY: The source of our strength is the American people. Hardworking, educated, freedom-loving, God-fearing, family-oriented, willing to sacrifice for the future, freedom-loving American --
BOB GARFIELD: There is no presidential campaign this year whose success or failure will so depend on media managers, marketing strategists and political gurus as that of Mitt Romney, that according to Ken Silverstein, Washington editor of Harper's Magazine.
In his November issue report, Making Mitt Romney: How to Fabricate a Conservative, Silverstein explains that the one-time governor of Massachusetts has been rebranded and repackaged for the national market. The question now remaining for Romney and his media handlers is -- will you buy the product?
A key testing ground is the all-important Republican primary state South Carolina, where Silverstein traveled widely this summer. And he joins me now. Ken, welcome back to the show.
KEN SILVERSTEIN: Thank you. BOB GARFIELD: You had an interesting [LAUGHS] opening salvo in your piece about suspicions that Romney is a phony and opportunist. You write, "By any reasonable standard, it's true." Tell me why it's true. KEN SILVERSTEIN: Well, first off, let me note that that description comes from a campaign document from Romney's own campaign where they talked about his potential strengths and weaknesses, and they identified one of the potential weaknesses as the view that he is a phony and an opportunist.
I said it's true because if you look at his political career, he starts off as campaigning for the Senate in Massachusetts against Ted Kennedy, where at times he tries to be more liberal than Kennedy. I mean, he supports gay rights, he accuses Kennedy of being hypocritical on the issue of abortion and for becoming pro choice after Roe versus Wade. He even distances himself from Ronald Reagan.
So when he's running for the Senate in 1994 in Massachusetts, he's a very liberal Republican. Then when he runs for governor of Massachusetts, he's also quite a liberal Republican.
And basically the task confronting the Romney campaign is to rebrand and repackage this guy from the moderate Republican governor of the most liberal state in the union into a red-meat, social conservative heir to Ronald Reagan who will sell to the Republican base. BOB GARFIELD: Now, we've used the word "branding," which may sound judgmental or cynical, but, in fact, that's the word his own campaign uses internally, right? KEN SILVERSTEIN: When I was down in South Carolina, I spoke to his chief consultant there, a guy named Warren Tompkins, who ran George Bush's campaign in South Carolina in 2000. And, yes, he used the term "branding." He said, we've got a branding problem, we have to work harder to brand our guy because Romney hasn't been known to a national audience like McCain and Giuliani.
I mean, he certainly wouldn't say Mitt Romney is a phony, but he acknowledged that there were some explanations in order about some of his past stances. I mean, for example, he clearly said on abortion Governor Romney flip-flopped, and he said that won't be a problem for us because we've been seeking converts. You know, the anti-abortion crowd has been seeking converts since Roe versus Wade, so it'll work for us. But he acknowledged that on that issue, certainly, Governor Romney has changed quite a bit. BOB GARFIELD: Well, on that subject, here is a bit of a YouTube video that captures Mitt Romney in '94 during his failed bid that you mentioned against incumbent Senator Ted Kennedy. MITT ROMNEY: I believe that abortion should be safe and legal in this country. I believe that since Roe v. Wade has been the law for 20 years that we should sustain and support it.
I feel that all people should be allowed to participate in the Boy Scouts regardless of their sexual orientation.
Look, I was an independent during the time of Reagan/Bush. I'm not trying to return to Reagan/Bush.
My personal beliefs, like the personal beliefs of other people, should not be brought into a political campaign. KEN SILVERSTEIN: Clearly, when he was running for the Senate in '94, Romney saw that he needed to sell himself to a very different audience than he needs to sell himself to now.
And, in fact, even a few years ago, Human Events, which is a very right-wing magazine, listed Romney as one of its top-10 RINOS, Republicans in Name Only. And there's a lot of suspicions on the part of the Republican right that Mitt Romney is not one of them. BOB GARFIELD: Back in '68, the old Red-baiting Nixon became the new Nixon, the new China-embracing Nixon. And, you know, Bill Clinton moved quite hard to the right after the '94 disaster for Democrats in Congress. One man's flip-flopping or opportunism is another man's getting in synch with the electorate. KEN SILVERSTEIN: You make a very valid point. On the other hand, I do believe that Romney has to move further ideologically than any of his competitors. And it's very hard to explain. I mean, if you look at other politicians who have made this sort of dramatic shift, they could all sort of point to some sort of political epiphany.
I mean, Ronald Reagan was a New Deal Democrat, and then in the early '60s he joins the Republican Party. You know, he talked about his own experiences in Hollywood and he had a very, very detailed explanation for his political shift.
I would also point out that when Ronald Reagan became a Republican, it was hardly a politically advantageous position to take, whereas Romney, you go, can you point to some sort of political epiphany? Is there anything that happened that accounts for you moving so far to the right over the last decade or so? And he really can't point to anything. BOB GARFIELD: I want to get back to South Carolina in a moment, but first I want to go to Iowa and the Ames Straw Poll. It was very important to Romney. He spent a lot of [LAUGHS] money. Here's a commercial he aired at that time. [CLIP]: [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] MITT ROMNEY: Washington politicians in both parties have proven they can't control spending, and they won't control our borders. I will. But I need your help to do it. So come on to Ames. After all, changing America always starts in Iowa. I'm Mitt Romney. [END OF CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: Well, he got his message across and, I guess, did very well in the straw poll -- at what cost? KEN SILVERSTEIN: At minimum, he spent three million dollars in Iowa, two million dollars for TV ads and at least one million dollars on organization. They bused in their supporters. They arranged a barbecue lunch. There was a big direct mail campaign. There was entertainment. They paid for hundreds of what they called "super-volunteers," which would be anywhere from a college kid to folks they hired and paid 500 to 1,000 dollars just to sort of recruit voters for them.
And, you know, in the end, he got 4,615 voters at the Ames Straw Poll. I calculated that that would have meant at least 650 dollars per vote.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] KEN SILVERSTEIN: And probably that's a dramatic understatement. The calculation is that you win the Ames Straw Poll and it amounts to a big P.R. boost and you get a lot of good news out of it and it builds momentum. And they may be right. BOB GARFIELD: But he's still polling low in South Carolina. Is it all because of phoniness and opportunism? KEN SILVERSTEIN: I spoke to a number of conservative officials down there. There's a woman named Cindy Mosteller who told me that she just didn't trust this guy who's running more to the left in Massachusetts and who now is this diehard social conservative. She said she just found it very patronizing to her intelligence, to her conservatism and to the South.
And I think it's been more difficult for him to penetrate that electorate in South Carolina. But, you know, they're spending a lot of money down there. It's a key state for them, and he will come up in the polls. It's just a question of how far. BOB GARFIELD: Ken, thank you very much. KEN SILVERSTEIN: Thank you. Appreciate you having me on. BOB GARFIELD: Ken Silverstein is the Washington editor of Harper's Magazine. His piece, Making Mitt Romney: How to Fabricate a Conservative, is in the November issue.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER] MITT ROMNEY: Thank you. Want to hug you all. Love you. Good night. [APPLAUSE] [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
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